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Over the years, veteran tenor saxophonist Fred Hess has shown himself to be a versatile, broad-minded, highly flexible musician/composer who can handle a wide variety of jazz settings. Like fellow saxophone explorer Joe Lovano -- who he has often been compared to -- the Colorado resident is happy and inspired in avant-garde situations, but is also quite capable of playing in what jazz musicians describe as "the tradition," which refers to straight-ahead jazz (hard bop, bebop, cool jazz, swing, post-bop, etc.) rather than avant-garde jazz, fusion, crossover jazz or electric jazz-funk. And like Lovano, Hess offers an inside/outside perspective; he isn't someone who believes that jazz artists are obligated to confine themselves to "the tradition" morning, noon and night, but at the same time, he isn't as radical or as far to the left musically as someone like free jazz firebrand Charles Gayle (who is known for taking outside improvisation to the extreme, and has been greatly influenced by John Coltrane's post-1965 output). Hess brings a long and diverse list of influences to his work. On the avant-garde side, his influences have ranged from Ornette Coleman and Steve Lacy to the Chicago-based AACM, Roscoe Mitchell, and Anthony Braxton (although Hess isn't as consistently outside as Braxton has been). Eric Dolphy has influenced Hess; so have different periods of Coltrane's career. And when he draws on "the tradition," Hess can incorporate elements of Sonny Rollins as well as the seminal Lester "The Pres" Young. Saying that Hess has been influenced by "The Pres" isn't saying that he is a swing revival artist -- Hess is far from that -- or that he is trying to sound exactly like Young sounded in the '30s, '40s or '50s. Rather, Hess demonstrates that an improviser can bring elements of Young or hard bopper Rollins to his tone, even though he doesn't improvise the way they improvised; when someone compares Hess to Young or Stan Getz, it has to do with intonation rather than the notes that he chooses. No one would mistake one of Hess' abstract, AACM-influenced inside/outside solos for one of the solos that Young provided for singer Billie Holiday at Columbia Records back in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era. Hess isn't a native of Colorado; he was born in Abington, PA (a Philadelphia suburb) in 1944 and grew up in New Jersey (where he attended Trenton State College as a young adult). The saxman was 37 when, in 1981, he moved to Boulder, CO, where he founded the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble the following year. Hess went on to continue his education in Colorado, and in 1991, he graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder with a doctorate in music composition. Hess began recording as a leader in the early '90s, when he recorded Sweet Thunder for the small, Colorado-based Capri Records; his next Capri release, You Know I Care, came out in 1994. The early 2000s found Hess, who turned 60 in 2004, providing several albums for Tapestry (another Colorado-based indie).
Fred Hess (born 1944, Abington, Pennsylvania) is an American jazz tenor saxophonist.
Hess was raised in New Jersey and studied at Trenton State College. His early experiences include studies with saxophonist Phil Woods, a stint with bandleader Fred Waring, and composing music for the world premiere of a Sam Shepard play. As a composer, his influences encompass avant-garde classical sources, as well as Anthony Braxton and the members of the AACM. He moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 1981, where he founded the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble. He then completed further studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, taking his doctorate in composition in 1991. He recorded his first albums as a leader in the early 1990s. He is currently Director of Music Composition at Metro State College in Denver, Colorado.
In addition to his own projects as a leader (BCME and The Fred Hess Group), he was the founding director of Denver's Creative Music Works Orchestra and has been a member of drummer Ginger Baker's Denver Jazz Quintet, as well as ensembles led by trumpeter Ron Miles. His current performing group is the Fred Hess Big Band.
Hess's playing has been influenced by Lester Young, John Coltrane, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and Eric Dolphy. Among his releases is Extended Family, issued in 2003 on Tapestry Records.Fred Hess at Allmusic Extended Family Review. NPR, February 11, 2003.